The Grace in Grief

The colon in Chinese medicine is the Great Eliminator. Revered for the capacity to let go, this organ plays a vital role in the cycle of life. Constipation makes life miserable and uncomfortable. In our fast paced, sound bite culture, there is grief constipation.

Autumn in the Chinese view is the season of letting go also associated with the colon or the bowels. Trees let go of leaves and things die down. The bowels let go of waste in the body. The complementary organ is the lungs. Each season has an emotion associated with it and for autumn the emotion is grief. The two organs of the metal element are the lungs and the colon. They balance each other and illustrate the relationship between letting go and taking in. The colon is the Great Eliminator and the lungs are the Receiver of Qi from the Heavens. Only when we let go and allow clearing to happen will we have space and capacity to receive. In autumn things are dying down and returning to the earth. There is a poignancy and a beauty in this. Thus the importance of grief. Through the release of sadness there is an inner shift and we clear space for expansion—of breath, clarity of mind. It is no small thing. We must develop reverence for the reality of grief and the many faces it reveals.

Grief may be difficult and painful 

A village in West Africa performs a grief ritual in which the whole village participates. They chant, play drums and enter into a sacred time together in which everyone has the space to grieve if so moved. The fact that their culture created a ritual says something. For thousands of years they have done this ritual and it helps people to move through grief of all kinds. It helps the village as a whole to get through the feeling. It is vital for the health of society. In this West African village they have a way to move through a natural cycle.

How does our culture do it? I think by not doing it, or keeping busy and hoping to “get over it.” This reality has implications for the way we deal with pain and difficulty.

A loss may feel like a shock and can bring us out of our day to day reality. Recently, I attended a memorial service for a sixty-six year old man who died of cancer. It was poignant and beautiful. We laughed at the stories about him and were impressed to hear about his life. I gazed out the windows while hearing the music that he loved. I felt grateful for the mixture of sadness and sense of richness and expansion. We are all sitting here to honor this man on a Monday afternoon. It is sunny and beautiful. We have made last minute arrangements to be here. To come together in honor of a person soothes the pain and gives a glimpse of eternity.

To grieve is a capacity

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one. You will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to.”

She is addressing capacity for grief and loss. She illuminates how we must enter into it and be with grief. To do the work of it, and the letting go into it is vital. It is a natural cycle. There are many kinds of grief. Sometimes we grieve as a family, a tribe or as a nation. How our leaders speak to us and how we speak to and listen to each other impacts how we live and carry on.

There are many faces of grief

The welling up of grief after Mom died was not immediate. At first I tiptoed up to the edge of the torrent of feeling and kept it at bay. I was busy and I was numb. I was afraid of it and holding on with caution waiting for it to hit me. I had mixed feelings and questions that arose with the events of her passing. I needed space.

It was three weeks later that I got a glimpse of the chasm of grief. I was half way between New York City and Baltimore, riding alone in my little car. It had been a busy few weeks and now I was alone. Music I love played and I relaxed into a sense fullness at all that had transpired. Then, I felt it, a wave rising up. I had images of her last weeks, her smile, other moments over years. I thought, “She is gone. Her body is no longer. Her life is over. My mother is dead. This is grief.” I had many other images of her that flashed though as the chasm of loss carved deeper. A distant thought floated by: “This is almost unbearable.” Pain and sweet reflection are side by side. Then, it lightened.  Tears were poised on my eye lashes. My heart was full. I felt washed out and grateful to be alone on the road, where I often find solace and time to reflect.

This was a glimpse and it was as private a moment as it could be. What way do we share in grief as a people? What made it hard for me to tap into grief? These are big questions, and not only for me. Our society does not know how to embrace grief or to model grieving to each other. It is the ultimate emotion that we often feel must be borne in private. We are to “get over it.” Unwelcome feelings invite distraction, yet, like any challenge, they also invite curiosity. What is going on? To be conscious of these feelings is to pull into the present moment.

In my family it is hard to grieve together. We learned to stuff it inside so as not to set each other off and feel the pain. We laugh and tell stories, which is a wonderful face of grief. Yet the tears belong there too. My experience in the family echoes what our culture does. We stuff it inside and move on.

Grief is not to be taken lightly. My friend Deborah Baer, a clinical social worker, experienced a major loss many years ago. Caught off guard about how much it affected her, she began a journey to study grief. She read books and attended seminars and workshops on grief. When I heard her speak about it I felt grateful for her efforts. Over time she came to better understand it in herself and in her clients. She shared how she came to appreciate why grief is important. We do not “get over it,” we face it, feel it and weave the depth of the experience into our lives.

We need role models and ways that we can experience grief together

I listened to Pope Francis speak at the 9/11 memorial in the basement of what was the World Trade Center in New York. His words reminded me that grief does not just dissolve with a nod. It must be felt and allowed to run its course. I quote him here:

“…The flowing water is also a symbol of our tears. Tears at so much devastation and ruin, past and present. This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness….This flowing water reminds us of yesterday’s tears, but also of all the tears still being shed today….Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of, those hidden reserves of strength from which we can draw….”

Though he refers to a tragedy in a place that echoes with loss, he touches on the essence of grief as a part of life. He illuminates grief with his words. He then moves us gently to see how new life arises even in the most extreme situations. How vital to learn to walk towards instead of away from it. And how important to simply acknowledge the reality of grief, to feel it, in silence, in weeping, in camaraderie with others.

There is grace in grief that allows us to carve deeper into life

President Obama spoke at a church in honor of people who died. In the midst of his talk he broke into the song “Amazing Grace” and everyone joined in. Through experiencing grief together, we have the possibility of being comforted. We can be reminded of the delicate quality of life. We get beyond the sense of ordinariness that can permeate day to day life and glimpse how blessed we are exactly at this moment in our lives, with every detail as it is.

When we can let go and grieve, space opens up. At first that space may feel empty. There is an urge to fill it. Coffee? Chocolate? Chatter? It helps to understand the reality of loss. But it doesn’t stop the feeling. It will move, eventually. To lean into it promotes the moving on that connects to life rhythms.

The web of life, with grief woven in

I jump down long steps to the railroad crossing and into the woods. Yes, that’s it. I’m grieving. I’m going to keep walking. I thought it might lift, just like that. It doesn’t. Usually, I don’t stay like this too long, though it is a familiar feeling. It can be like this one day, and the next day I am singing or chuckling as I walk the dog. Grief isn’t rational and it is multi-faceted. I keep walking.

To write about grief makes it more tangible, helps me to appreciate what I know, to remember and feel the emotion. I cannot predict or prepare for it other than to know it has its own way with me. It has its own time and like the creeping dusk, must be borne, must be weathered. I want to find my way to grieving with others, with my generation as we face death. How do we come together in love and appreciation, and how can we rise up together in comfort and do what needs to be done?

I get a sense of my larger self in this moment. I notice sounds of autumn in the crickets, the cool air, the nighttime, the turning of the season on this autumn evening. I sigh and smile at the eternity in the moment.

Autumn of the year, autumn of life, full of letting go and still being here, fullness arising out of emptiness.